• Published 23rd Nov 2013
  • 7,966 Views, 671 Comments

Three Wishes: The Hole In The Sun - Xepher



Twelve years after the Crusaders discovered their true nature, an ancient evil has returned. Celestia is hurt, magic is weakened, and Equestria is nearly lost. Now our heroes must find a way to fix The Hole In The Sun.

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Chapter 5: The Teapot Dome Scandal

Chapter 5: The Teapot Dome Scandal

Sugarcube Corner.
A quick trot from the library later. (Still three years after Rupert.)

"Hi, Pinkie," Apple Bloom said, trotting up to the counter with Sweetie Belle in tow. "How many kinds of candy do ya have?"

Pinkie Pie took a deep breath, preparing to enumerate the previously uncounted varieties of confection available.

"Wait! Forget I asked," Apple Bloom shouted, holding up a hoof just in time. "I'll just take one of everything."

Pinkie grinned, and hefted a large sack over the counter. "There you go! One biggest bestest every-flavor-we-have candy assortment, sorted alphabetically for ease of use."

"How many of those do you usually sell?" Sweetie asked, surprised-yet-not-really-surprised that such a thing was already prepared.

"Zero!" Pinkie gleefully exclaimed.

"Then how long has that one been sitting?"

"Oh, no, I would never sell old candy. I packed this one just this morning."

"You put one of these together every day, yet never sell any?"

Pinkie laughed. "That'd be silly, silly!"

"So you do sell some then?"

"Nope nope! You're the firstest to buy the biggest bestest! Like I said, I just put it together today."

"Wait, this is the first time you ever put one together? Then how did you..." Sweetie trailed off, realizing where this was going.

"Yup!" Pinkie said, winking. "Two tail twitches and an itch on the left fetlock."

"Well then, how much do we owe you?"

"Nada! The Royal Treasury already paid the bill last week."

"But we... we just found out about..." Sweetie lost the thread of any coherent thought, as she found often happened when dealing with Pinkie Pie.

Apple Bloom just smiled. Somehow, the more she learned about her own abilities, the less strange Pinkie Sense seemed. Recently, she'd started to suspect that it was some really weird extension of earth pony magic.

"Well," Sweetie said, turning to Apple Bloom. "Now we just need to go by—"

"Oh oh!" Pinkie interrupted again. "I already commissioned Bon Bon and Twist for all the candies they can make, too. They're in the bag as well, filed under BB and CC."

Deciding to ignore the first level question, Sweetie went for the second. "I get BB for Bon Bon, but why CC?"

Apple Bloom laughed. "She filed it by candy, not maker. BB is for bon-bons, the candy, not the pony. CC is candy canes."

Sweetie shook her head. "Let's just go, before my brain explodes."

"Thanks Pinkie," Apple Bloom said, waving. "We'll see ya 'round."

"Okie dokie!"

----

CMC Headquarters.
Three point one four seconds later.

Scootaloo heard a soft knock, and looked up from her book. Nopony ever knocked. The treehouse was a thousand feet in the sky, and miles from town too. Anypony that was coming to visit was generally expected well in advance, and it's not like the postmare would even deliver here.

Another knock. Well, Scootaloo thought, putting down her book and heading for the door, this should be interesting. Opening the door though, it was actually much more interesting than she'd anticipated. Standing on the other side of the threshold was a diamond dog.

"Gah!" she gasped, briefly startled by the freakish, bipedal appearance of the creature. It, in turn, stepped back in shock as well, and the two stared at each other in silence for a moment.

"Umm... Can I help you?" Scootaloo finally ventured.

"I... I was t-t-t-told I could vi-visit," said the—now that she looked more closely—small and scrawny creature.

"O-kaaaay..." They had set an official CMC policy that anypony was always welcome to visit the CMC headquarters, and several foals from class, as well as a few adults from town, had come to visit in the first couple of months after they'd finished the headquarters. But a diamond dog? That was new. This one seemed harmless enough though. "Uh, come on in I guess."

The diamond dog stuck his head in timidly, looking around at the interior without actually stepping inside. "Is-is... A-a-a-apple Bloom here?"

Curiouser and curiouser, Scootaloo thought. "Not at the moment. She'll probably be here later though. Why do you want to know?"

The diamond dog looked down, like he'd been scolded. "Sh-sh-she said I should v-v-visit her h-here."

Apple Bloom had never mentioned anything about knowing a diamond dog, and yet... Scootaloo got the impression he was telling the truth. Well, more accurately, she got the impression he was too socially inept to lie convincingly. Yet she also knew her friend wouldn't likely keep something like this from her. So what in the world was going on? Best to assume the best though. "You can come in and wait for her if you'd like."

The diamond dog took a few steps into the treehouse.

"My name's Scootaloo," the pegasus said, extending a hoof.

The diamond dog just looked oddly at the extended hoof, not sure what to do with it, but he did reply. "I'm... Runt."

"Umm, nice to meet you," Scootaloo said, after eventually lowering her hoof. "So how do you know Apple Bloom?"

The two were interrupted by a loud pop. Runt yelped, and dashed behind the table on instinct. Scootaloo just turned, well used to the sound of an incoming teleport. Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom had just arrived with a large bag. "What've you guys got there?" she asked.

"Candy," Apple Bloom said, letting the bag thump to the floor. "Lotsa candy."

Sweetie Belle quickly caught sight of Runt behind the table. "Uh, we have a guest?" she asked, pointing him out.

"Yeah, says he knows you, Apple Bloom," Scootaloo said. "I think the teleport scared him," she added in what she—and only she—would consider a subtle whisper.

Apple Bloom, recognizing Runt from yesterday, gave a soft smile in his direction. "It's okay, Runt. These are my friends. You can come out."

Runt looked embarrassed as he stepped around the table. "S-sorry. The n-n-noise was l-loud."

"It's okay, Runt," Apple Bloom said, pointing at her friend. "It was just Sweetie here showin' off again."

Sweetie opened her mouth for a witty retort, but decided against it. Instead, she turned to the diamond dog. "Hello, Runt. Apple Bloom's been telling me a bit about you this morning. It's a pleasure to meet you." Sweetie held out her paw.

Startled, Runt looked at the metal limb. Apple Bloom had told him about her friends last night, including the one with the metal bones, but it was still surprising to see directly. At least he knew what the gesture meant though. He grasped her paw in his own, and they shook.

"Wait," Scootaloo said. "Am I the only one that didn't hear about this? Also, what the heck kinda hoofbump was that?"

A smirk crossed Sweetie's face. "Like it? I picked that up from Spike, who said he learned it from a griffon. Apparently it's how you do it if you have thumbs."

Scootaloo shook her head rapidly to clear her thoughts. "Okay, never mind that. Since when do you have a diamond dog for a friend, Apple Bloom?"

"Aw, relax Scoots." Apple Bloom said. "I only met Runt yesterday. It's yer own fault ya slept in late this mornin'!"

Rolling her eyes, Scootaloo shrugged. "Okay, fair enough." Her tendency to sleep in routinely meant she was the last to the party, so to speak. "So fill me in though. What's the story here?" she said, nodding toward Runt and the bag of candy.

"Sweetie," Apple Bloom said. "Why don't you and Scootaloo take a walk while ya tell her what's goin' on? I'd like to talk ta Runt on my own fer a few."

Casting a suspicious look between her two friends, Scootaloo wanted to object. She didn't feel like a walk at all—she was a pegasus, she never did—but she'd learned that when she had no idea what was going on, it was usually best to follow the lead of her friends. "Umm, okay," she said. "Yeah, let's go on a walk. I sure love me some long, slow walks on the flat ground. Yup."

Apple Bloom facehooved. She appreciated that Scootaloo at least got the hint this time, but her attempts to "sell it" were simply awful. If the situation itself wasn't so sad, she'd be laughing her tail off right now. Instead, she just saw her friends to the door, and made sure it was closed behind them, before turning to Runt.

"So," she said, not wanting to face the hard truth. "Uh, welcome to the CMC Headquarters, I guess. Ya want the tour?"

"Tour?" Runt asked, tilting his head to the side.

"Yeah, I can show ya around, explain stuff."

Runt looked around at the one-room treehouse. There were a few windows, a couple of doors, and some very spartan furniture. "Th-th-there's more r-rooms?"

"Ah, not exactly."

"Then wh-wh-what's the t-t-tour?"

Apple Bloom chuckled a bit nervously. "Well, mostly it's me walkin' real slow and pointin' out the trophies an' such on the shelf. Then we stand out on the porch, and ya get to go, 'I can see mah house from here!'"

Runt looked toward the glass doors leading to the porch. "I w-w-would like to s-see the view."

"Right this way then!" Apple Bloom trotted to the doors, and opened them, motioning for Runt to step through.

"Wow, it really is h-high up here!"

"Eeyup. Nearly a thousand feet. Took me forever ta grow all those stairs."

Stepping to the railing, the diamond dog leaned out and took in the view. He really could see his house from here, or at least the hillside that contained it. Looking off to the distance though, Ponyville itself was visible, the multi-colored houses standing out from the greens and browns of the surrounding fields. Beyond that, the distant mountains, and the great castle of Canterlot.

Runt closed his eyes, and took several deep breaths. When he opened them, he was smiling. "It's so... peaceful," he said. "The sky is so endless from way up here. It's like it goes on forever."

Apple Bloom couldn't help but notice his stutter had practically disappeared. "Ya like it up here, eh?"

Nodding, Runt grinned. "There are no walls c-closing in. There's no ceiling pressing down on me. It's like... like being free." He closed his eyes again, and turned his face toward the sun. "It's wonderful!"

A diamond dog that didn't like the ground? Well, Apple Bloom thought, certainly not the strangest thing she'd heard. The look of joy on Runt's face did make what she needed to say that much harder though.

"Umm, Runt..."

Opening his eyes, Runt turned toward her and saw the look on her face. He tilted his head. "Is something wr-wrong?"

Taking a deep breath, Apple Bloom sighed and hung her head. "Yeah, Runt, I'm afraid there is. I promise I'll tell ya all about it in a few. First though, would ya mind helpin' me with something?"

"Okay. I g-g-guess I can tr-try." It seemed his stutter was coming back as Apple Bloom's nervousness wore off on him.

She lead him back inside, and pulled a few hard candies from the bag. Apple Bloom unwrapped one and broke it, offering a piece to Runt. "Can you taste this, and tell me what ya think?"

Taking the sweet, runt put it in his mouth and tried to chew it, his sharp teeth making loud crunches.

"No, no, just suck on it for a second, let it melt in your mouth slowly. Like this." Apple Bloom put another piece in her own mouth, and let the sweet, orange flavor melt on her tongue.

Trying to comply, Runt dutifully stopped chewing, but couldn't stop himself from making contorted faces as he sucked on the candy. "H-how long do I have to-to keep doing this?"

"Somethin' wrong?"

"It ta-tastes awful!"

"Oh, I'm sorry. Go ahead and spit it out if ya want."

Runt did so immediately, smacking his tongue and lips afterwards, trying to get the taste out of his mouth.

"That bad?" Apple Bloom asked, surprised at the reaction. "I guess we can cross orange off the list then. How about this one?" She handed him a piece of another candy. Runt looked at it suspiciously. "Just a quick taste. Ya can spit it right out if it's no good."

It was, apparently, no good. Neither was the next, or the next. Apple Bloom dug further into the bag, and tried some wider varieties, including chocolates, mints, and assorted truffles. Runt didn't like any of them, though mint he at least tolerated, saying it made his tongue feel funny, even though it didn't really taste good.

"Okay, one last thing." Apple Bloom went to the small pantry in the corner, where they kept their tea, hot cocoa, and some basic snacks. She returned with a bowl of sugar, and gave Runt a small spoonful to taste.

For once, his reaction was rather mild. "Like it?" she asked.

"It's m-m-mostly tasteless. Just a faint h-hint of dust."

Brow scrunching in confusion, Apple Bloom thought it through. "So I guess ya just really can't taste sugar at all then. Nothin' sweet works for ya."

Runt nodded, and Apple Bloom tried to imagine what candy would taste like without the sweetness. Orange would be... just bitter and acidic. Mint would be weirdly numbing. Chocolate... well, burnt dirt was how Runt described it, and she had to believe that was probably about right. Even apples and cider would be awful without the sweetness. She shuddered at the thought.

"So it wasn't just sweetrock that you don't like, but all sweets." Apple Bloom said. "You can't taste sweetness, so it's all just blech?"

"Y-yes," Runt answered. "But I n-n-never knew there were s-so many other things that I c-couldn't like because they're sw-sweet. Wh-why did you want m-me to try all th-those?"

It was sad, Apple Bloom thought. Runt would never be able to enjoy so many delicious things if he couldn't taste sugar. But there was a tremendous upside for him as well. Because of his lack of taste, he'd never poisoned himself with the lead in sweetrock. She looked up at him and gave a sad smile, before launching into a full explanation of what she'd learned about the systemic lead poisoning she suspected was crippling the diamond dogs.

By the end, Runt was horrified, yet nearly as determined as Apple Bloom was to do something about it. It all made so much sense, he thought. Why he was so different from all the others around him. He wasn't just smarter than them by accident, but because he'd been the only one to grow up without being poisoned. Though some quirk, he'd been born without the ability to taste sweet things, yet that'd allowed him to escape the curse that plagued the rest of his entire race. A small price to pay for never being able to enjoy an apple, he thought, even after Apple Bloom had explained in detail just how much he was missing in that regard.

----

A dome-shaped hillside, near a crashed Teapot.
Two days later.

The three Crusaders stood a little ways down the hill from the entrance to the diamond dog warrens. Apple Bloom was carrying the bag of candies, and today was the start of the experiment. She was nervous, but was glad to have her friends beside her.

Out of the cave-like entrance, Runt appeared. Jogging over to the ponies, he looked nervous.

"Are we good to go?" Apple Bloom asked him.

"I th-think so. I t-t-told them you were coming, bu-but they didn't seem to really understand why p-p-ponies would come here. I th-think they might not be t-t-too nice."

"We suspected that might happen," Sweetie Belle said. "That's why all three of us are here."

"Yeah," Scootaloo said, nodding to Sweetie. "We're more than a match for any mean old diamond dog."

"Whoa there, Scoots," Apple Bloom said. "Let's try the carrot—errr, the candy, before the stick, okay?"

"It's your show, AB. I'm just here for backup."

"Yeah, Apple Bloom. Lead on!" Sweetie Belle said.

Taking a moment to psych herself up, Apple Bloom took a few deep breaths, then marched resolutely into the tunnels.

Runt and the other two ponies followed closely behind, and the group soon found themselves in near darkness. Then it started to get brighter again. Continuing, the ponies were surprised to see how well lit the tunnel became. As they stepped into the fully lit portion, they could see the light was coming not from torches, but from glowing rocks stuck into the walls at irregular intervals. It was just as Runt described, they really did use "hotrocks" for lighting. As the equium in the stones wasn't purified though, the glow was mostly pretty faint, meaning there were a lot of rocks used to light the tunnels.

Turning a corner, they came upon a larger room. It'd obviously been dug out from the surrounding earth by claws, and assumed a roughly hemispherical shape, though the floor and walls were full of imperfections, where large stones or tougher strains of minerals protruded. Several other tunnels connected to the room, and before they could ask Runt which direction to take, a large diamond dog entered the room from the far side.

"I thoughts I smelled ponies!"

Apple Bloom recognized him from both the voice and the dark vest as one of the bullies she'd subdued the other day. Looking at her, it appeared he recognized her too. "You!" he said. "I owes you a beatings!"

Scootaloo quickly stepped beside Apple Bloom, and Sweetie Belle took the other flank, both ready to defend their friend. Apple Bloom held up a hoof for them to stand down, as Runt slowly tried to move out of sight of the whole ordeal.

"Howdy!" she said, taking a slow step forward. "Mah name's Apple Bloom. I think maybe we got off on the wrong foot the other day."

"I'm going to breaks all your foots!"

"You could do that. Or, maybe I can give ya a present to make up for it?"

The large diamond dog paused in his advance. "Present?"

"Uh, yeah. I got some delicious candy here. It's like sweetrock, but way better." Apple Bloom reached into the bag and pulled out a small piece of watermelon candy, and carefully tossed it to him. "Try a piece."

The diamond dog sniffed at it, before starting to put it in his mouth.

"Ya gotta unwrap it first!"

Getting a confused look in response, she pulled out another piece, and demonstrated, before putting it in her own mouth.

The diamond dog followed suit, and made several curious faces. Then he crunched into the candy and finished it quickly.

"Like it?" Apple Bloom asked cautiously.

"Is good," he said, before starting to advance again. "Still owes you a beatings!"

"Wait wait wait!" Apple Bloom said. "Try this one." She broke off a piece of a candy cane and tossed it to him.

Trying to find a wrapper again, the diamond dog was slightly confused. After Apple Bloom explained it was safe to eat directly this time, he put it in his mouth and made several funny faces as the strange cooling effect hit his mouth. After a few seconds though, he seemed to be enjoying it thoroughly.

"Is bestest sweetrock I is ever had! Does pony has more?"

Apple Bloom turned and smiled at her two friends, nodding. This might actually work. "Yes," she said. "I've got lots more. I'll give ya a big piece if ya promise not to beat us up."

The diamond dog considered this for a moment, before making his own counter offer. "Maybe I just beats yous and takes all the pieces of candies?"

"Yeah, you just try it," Scootaloo said. "See what happens."

The diamond dog started to growl, the fur on his neck and back rising at the threat.

As she was trying to defuse the situation, Apple Bloom felt that could've been worded better. That said, it was bound to come up eventually. If the diamond dogs thought they could just take stuff, they'd never learn to cooperate. They needed that cooperation if they were ever going to convince them to stop using sweetrock. Maybe it would be good to set an example. Carrot and stick.

"I really wish ya wouldn't try to beat us up," Apple Bloom said. "Ya couldn't even take me alone last time, and now mah friends are here too. But if yer determined. Well, let's get it over with."

The diamond dog charged.

"Sweetie, would ya be so kind?"

"With pleasure," Sweetie Belle said, her horn lighting as she levitated the bully off the ground and held him just beyond his arm's reach of the group. He struggled for a few moments, throwing insults as well as useless swings and kicks. The ponies just waited him out. When he started to slow down, Apple Bloom spoke.

"Now, we could keep at this all day, but I'd really rather not. Wouldn't ya much rather have this here candy cane?" She brandished the large confection in front of the helpless creature. "Like I said before, I'll be happy to let ya have it. Ya just gotta be nice to us, an' stop tryin' to pick a fight."

The diamond dog finally stopped struggling.

"Ya ready to play nice?"

He nodded.

"Sweetie?"

"Are you sure, Apple Bloom?"

"I'm sure."

Sweetie shrugged, then released her hold on the diamond dog, freeing him where he'd been held, mere inches from Apple Bloom.

Holding out the candy cane, Apple Bloom offered it to the diamond dog, who quickly snatched it from her. "Now remember," she said. "This means ya aren't gonna try to hurt us no more, right?"

The diamond dog nodded meekly.

"Right? Ah want to hear ya say it."

"Yes. Not hurts ponies."

"Good!" Apple Bloom smiled. "Now, how would ya like to get another candy cane?"

Suspicious, but obviously interested, he responded. "What's the pony wants this times?"

"I reckon we might make a trade for this one. I see ya'll got all these hotrocks just all over the place here, and I'd really like a couple'a my own. So I was thinkin' maybe if ya wanted to trade me a couple of those for a big ol' piece a candy, that'd be a fair deal."

"Pony just wants the hotrocks? Why ponies not just takes them?"

"They ain't so easy to find where I'm from. An' these 'round here belong to ya'll, least the way I reckon. Figure I gotta give ya somethin' to make it fair."

Thinking the deal seemed too good to be true—hotrocks were everywhere, literally every couple of feet in every tunnel—the diamond dog was hesitant, but couldn't pass up a chance for this delicious new pony sweetrock. He darted to the side of the room and yanked a few of the hotrocks out from where they'd been placed in a wall, then offered them to Apple Bloom. She took them, and gladly handed over another candy cane, this one spearmint instead of peppermint.

"Pleasure doin' business with ya!" Apple Bloom set the bag of candy on her back and turned to leave. Her friends, having expected a longer expedition, were confused, but followed her, as did Runt.

After they left and got some distance away from the exit, Scootaloo spoke up. "What was that all about? I thought we were going to try to meet a bunch of the diamond dogs."

"Ah think that one will be enough for now," Apple Bloom said. "We gotta work 'em slow. We'll come back in a couple of days, after the big bully in there has bragged to every other one about his delicious new sweetrock. Then we won't even have to talk 'em into tryin' it. They'll be begging for it."

Sweetie laughed. "You know, Apple Bloom, sometimes, I think you're a little too devious."

----

Diamond Dog Den.
Three days later.

"Mores! Wants more pony sweetrocks!"

"Hold on there," Apple Bloom said. "I've got another deal for ya."

The diamond dog waited patiently to hear it.

"See, ah've been thinkin' that maybe some'a the other diamond dogs might want some candy too. Well, and there are so many kinds, that ah ain't quite sure what's best. So I was gonna have my friend Runt try to find out. Problem is, he'll need some help."

"Yes, yes. I helps the Runts. Hows I helps?"

"What I'm gonna do is leave him a whole bag of candy, and everyone'a ya'll can get one piece a day from 'im. Now, a course some a ya might think to take more than one piece, but that wouldn't be fair. Runt's gonna need someone to make sure no one tries to take more."

"Pony wants me to guards Runts and the candies?"

"Exactly! I figure yer big an' strong. I'm sure ya could do a good job at it. But I know it's hard work. So I'll tell Runt to let you take three pieces a day, instead'a just one. How's that sound?"

"Three pieces? Justs for guardsing?"

"Eeyup. But if I hear ya let the others cheat, or ya let anything hurt Runt, then ya ain't never gonna get any candy from me again, got it?"

The diamond dog nodded. "Is deals! When starts? I gets my pieces nows?"

"Once piece now. Ya get the rest at the end'a each day."

"Twos now. Ones later!"

"Heh, okay. Ya got a deal!"

----

CMC Headquarters.
One week later.

"Well?" Apple Bloom asked.

"I c-can't believe it actually w-worked," Runt said. "None of them cheated, and no one p-p-picked on me."

"So, what'd they like the best?"

"The c-c-candy c-c-canes. The r-r-red ones."

Apple Bloom smirked. Somepony was about to become very busy. But first things first. "Okay, so tell me, just how important are the hotrocks to ya guys in those tunnels?"

"Wh-why do you ask?"

"Because if ah go through with this next stage of the plan, I think ya might be runnin' outta 'em pretty quick."

"I-it's not going to k-kill us to do without them."

"Good."

----

A non-descript house in Ponyville.
Later that afternoon.

"Apple Bloom?" Twist said, opening the door. "What are you doing here?"

"Oh, ya know, just tryin' to save the world."

Twist looked at Apple Bloom with confusion. "What does that have to do with me?"

"That depends. How fast can ya make those candy canes?"

"Umm, usually I do about three hundred in a large batch, but the Cakes let me use the kitchen in Sugarcube Corner at Hearth's Warming last year, and I did maybe a thousand. It took the whole weekend though. Why?"

"Hmm." Apple Bloom ran some numbers in her head. "Three hundred should do fer for now. But, just hypothetically speakin', how many could ya do a week if ya had, say, yer own kitchen and maybe a couple'a other ponies helpin'?"

Twist scrunched her brow in thought. "Umm, I don't know, Apple Bloom. Thousands at least. But what in the world is this about?"

"To be honest, Twist, I ain't positive it'll work out yet. Don't want to get yer hopes up. But if it does go like I'm tryin' to make it go, then ya might be runnin' the biggest business in Ponyville in a couple'a months. Suffice ta say, I think I may'a found ya the biggest untapped market for candy in Equestria."

Twist, for her part, really had no idea what to make of that. It sounded appealing, but the whole thing was so out of the blue. And while she was friends with Apple Bloom, it wasn't like they were extremely close friends. Still though, she knew her well enough to trust that this wasn't some sort of trick. "So, what do you want me to do?"

----

Royal Ponyville Library.
The next day.

"Value?" Twilight Sparkle said. "I'm not sure. Caribou traders consider them to be decently valuable tools, equivalent in trade to a good axe. I have no idea what the value is when you're talking about refined equium, as there's never been such a thing before."

"Can't ya... extrapolate?" Apple Bloom asked, hesitantly. "That's the right word, right?"

Nodding, Twilight considered it for a moment. "Well... If you consider just the value as a fuel source for existing steam engines, a few ounces of equium could replace all the coal needed by a locomotive." She pulled out a pen and parchment, running some calculations. "Figuring the number of trains in Equestria, multiplying that by the average length of trip, and accounting for the coal consumption per mile of travel and the number of trips per year. Hmm... wow! That's... Wow!"

"What? What's 'wow'?"

"That's a lot higher than I imagined. The three or four ounces of refined equium to run a train for a year would save about thirty-thousand bits in coal. And that's not counting for all the time saved in not having to continually reload at stations, and shovel the coal itself. And if you consider that the equium would probably last for many, many years as well, then it'd be worth maybe something around one hundred thousand bits, just in coal savings alone."

"So, yer telling me that marble-sized bit'a equium ya gave me to experiment with was worth more than a house?"

"I... I guess I am." Twilight looked as shocked as Apple Bloom felt. "Wait, what do you mean, 'was'?"

"Ah, never mind that for now. There's plenty more I think. Here." Apple Bloom handed the hotrocks she'd traded for over to Twilight. "How much do ya think ones like these are worth?"

Horn glowing, Twilight scanned the rocks. "Hard to say for sure, but these seem to have roughly the same concentration of equium as the samples we originally got from the Caribou. Something around eight percent or so if I had to guess."

"So, ten or twelve'a' 'em to make a fuel-sized marble bit?"

"Or less. These are larger in volume than our target size after refining."

"So that rock is worth ten thousand bits after it's refined?"

Twilight held the rock up in front of her. Hard to believe, but yet it seemed to be true. "I think so, if you can find somepony to buy it, of course. Speaking of, how did you get a hold of it?"

"Would ya believe me if I said I got both of 'em in exchange for a single candy cane?"

"From a diamond dog?"

"Eeyup. And they got thousands of 'em too. How fast do ya reckon you an' Sweetie can refine a hundred of these things?"

"Me?" Twilight asked. "It took several days to refine a single ounce. Sweetie Belle helped speed that up some, and it goes a bit faster now, but there's no way to do that much here in my lab. You're talking an industrial scale process here, Apple Bloom. You'd need a dedicated facility to process that much on a regular basis."

Apple Bloom hung her head.

----

On the trail from Teapot Dome.
Three hours later.

The Crusaders were walking through the fields, headed back to Headquarters from the hill that Scootaloo had christened Teapot Dome, in honor of the crashed engine. Apple Bloom had insisted on the walk, both to clear her own head, and to give her time to explain things to her friends after they'd dropped off another batch of candy with Runt.

"Ten thousand bits!" Scootaloo exclaimed. "Each? That's crazy!"

"Eeyup, but that's what Twilight said they'd be worth." Apple Bloom was still trying to wrap her own head around it. "An' that's just the saved cost in coal for trains. I reckon we can find dozens'a other places it could be used too, like if we ever get that Teapot flyin' properly. Of course, we ain't got no way to refine it all, and the raw rocks aren't worth much to anypony when they just glow a bit."

"But ten thousand bits per rock! We'd be rich. We could buy anything we ever wanted!"

"Yeah, Scootaloo," Sweetie Belle said. "But it's not ours to sell. It belongs to the diamond dogs."

"Sure, but we can trade a few candy canes and then we'll be rich!"

"That was mah plan," Apple Bloom said. "But the point was to keep 'em from poisoning themselves, not to make us rich. I figured we could trade some candy, keep 'em eatin' that instead, and get a little useful equium in the process. But if it's worth that much... that changes things a bit."

"How so?" Scootaloo worried her brow with confusion. "I mean, more money is better, right?"

"But what happens once everypony else figures out what we're doing?" Sweetie Belle said. "Just imagine what the papers would look like, 'Fillies trade candy for untold riches!' Then the next day, every swindler and huckster in Equestria would be here, trying to take everything they could for themselves. Imagine the Film Flam brothers times a thousand."

"Yeah," Apple Bloom said. "We're tryin' to help the diamond dogs, not get 'em overrun and ripped off."

"Hmm," Scootaloo said. "I guess you have a point. If we really want to keep them from eating sweetrock, we need to keep trading them candy for years and years."

"Exactly," Apple Bloom said. "So we either gotta keep equium from actually bein' valuable, or keep everypony in all'a equestria from learnin' about where it comes from."

"That's a pretty big secret to try to keep, AB."

"Ah know. Which is why I think we gotta try for the other one first."

"But how do you make something valuable not valuable?"

"Well," Apple Bloom said. "Remember what we've been learnin' in economics?"

"Ugh, don't remind me. That textbook is the most boring thing I've had to read all year!"

Apple Bloom chuckled. "Yeah, but I know ya picked up some of it, so stay with me here for a sec. The way I figure it, we got cheap supply right now from the diamond dogs, as they have no idea what hotrocks are really worth. Yet we've also got a potentially high demand for equium, replacin' thousands'a bits worth of coal every month. If we let everypony in on it, the diamond dogs get overrun and bought out, and then we got nothin' to keep 'em away from sweetrock."

"Right," Sweetie said. "But the prices will go down pretty soon after all that equium gets on the market. It won't be worth nearly as much after a few months."

"Exactly! So what we need is some kinda buffer. Somethin' to keep the market steady."

"Oh," Scootaloo added. "Like the way a water tower works!"

"Huh?"

"You know, the water from a well gets pumped up to the reservoir in the tower a little bit at a time by the pump, but then it provides steady pressure to the rest of the pipes going into ponies' homes, even when ponies use more water than the well could provide on its own."

"Yeah, I guess that is a good analogy then."

"But it only works if the water tower gets filled up before everypony turns on their taps."

Apple Bloom smiled. "See, I knew ya were payin' attention!"

"Yeah yeah," Scootaloo said dismissively, even though she was smiling a bit. "It's still boring though!"

"So," Sweetie Belle said. "We've got the well, with the diamond dogs. I think the candy is our 'pump' then. That means we need a water tower."

"That," Apple Bloom said. "And we need the pipes to distribute it. Well, and some way to refine it. Ah guess that'd be like the water filter in this analogy."

"Doesn't the water company usually do all of that?" Scootaloo said.

"Hmm," Sweetie Belle stopped on the trail as she pondered. The other ponies stopped as well, once they realized she'd fallen behind.

"What is it, Sweetie?"

"Well, I was just thinking you're on to something there. It's going to take a pretty big facility to process all the equium the diamond dogs have. You need a company for that sort of thing. So doesn't it make sense that the same company might also provide the pipes and the water tower? That is, store up a reserve of equium, and run the distribution network?"

"Yeah, I guess so."

"But they'd have to be trustworthy," Apple Bloom added. "We have to make sure we trade candy to the diamond dogs really slowly. So they'd have to build up a reserve for a couple years before startin' to sell, and not tell anypony about it in the meantime."

"I think I might have an idea on that," Sweetie Belle said, grinning.

----

A rather ostentatiously large house in Ponyville.
The next day.

"Sweetie Belle? What are you... I mean, uh... Hi! What's up?"

"Hi Diamond, am I interrupting something?" Sweetie Belle said.

"Oh, no. Silver and I were just hanging out by the pool. Come in!"

Diamond Tiara led Sweetie Belle through the large house and out to the backyard and the poolside. "Have a seat," she said, motioning to the chairs under the large umbrella.

"Thanks." Sweetie took a seat, and the two were joined a moment later by Silver Spoon. She took a seat next to Diamond after drying off from a swim in the pool.

"Hello Sweetie," Silver said, squeezing the last of the water out of her braid.

"Hi, Silver. I haven't seen you in a couple of weeks. How are you doing?" Sweetie Belle replied.

"Better. It's still hard, you know, but..." Silver looked across at Sweetie. "Well, it's getting easier. At least at times. Sometimes, I even forget she's gone, and for a few minutes I feel almost normal. Then I feel awful that I could ever forget."

Sweetie nodded in sympathy. "I don't think she'd want you to feel bad, Silver. Your mom loved you, and I can't imagine she'd want you to feel guilty for moving on with your own life."

"I know, it's just..." Silver Spoon hung her head, tears starting to form in her eyes. "I just miss her so much."

Sweetie stood up and walked around the table, giving Silver a hug. "I know, and I'm sure she knows it too."

Sniffling, Silver looked up. "Thanks, Sweetie. For everything, I mean it. I don't know what I would've done without you and Diamond these past few months. My father's so distant, and..."

"We're here for you," Diamond said, leaning in to make it a group hug.

"Thank you both... I mean it." As the hug ended, Silver wiped her eyes, and tried to put on a smile. "So what brings you over here anyway, Sweetie Belle?"

"Actually," Sweetie said. "I've got a bit of a business proposition for Diamond."

"Oh?" Diamond said, "What kind of business?"

"Big. Really! It needs your father's company to pull it off."

"Why are you talking to me then?"

"Well, you said last year that he was grooming you to take over the company when you graduate. I figured that if you were to bring him a big deal now, he'd be pretty impressed, right?"

Diamond leaned forward in her seat. "And?"

Sweetie chuckled a bit nervously. "Okay, so it requires a lot of secrecy, and sounds pretty crazy at first. It'd be a tough sell. But I think you, his own daughter, would perhaps be able to convince him."

"So, how big and how crazy are we talking here?"

"Big enough and crazy enough to change the world." Sweetie looked Diamond directly in the eye. "Literally."

Diamond paused in thought for a moment. Strange how much difference a few years could make. She and Silver both used to tease Sweetie and her two friends mercilessly. But the unicorn had, against all odds and common sense, decided to befriend them regardless. At the absolute height of their teasing one afternoon, she'd... hugged them. Diamond still wasn't sure exactly why that even worked, but it broke something in her. She'd needed that hug, more than she had ever realized. After the initial shock had worn off, she started to see everypony, including herself, in a different light.

In the years since, Sweetie Belle had become a relatively close friend, to both her and Silver. Then, when Silver's mom had died in the spring, Diamond had been at a loss. She loved her friend dearly, but had so little practice in how to be outwardly compassionate. Sweetie had stepped up to fill that gap, helping Silver get through the worst of it, while Diamond in turn learned from her example, and saw what true friendship and compassion should look like. She was eternally grateful to Sweetie, both for the indirect lesson, and for saving her friend Silver from the worst of the depression.

Through the whole ordeal, she'd come to realize she could trust Sweetie Belle implicitly, despite their earlier history of animosity. The unicorn didn't hold a grudge. She was truly one of the nicest ponies Diamond had ever met, as well as one of the most forthright and honest. Never mind that she was also one of the most powerful. So when she said this idea was big enough to change the world, Diamond Tiara believed her.

"For the better, I presume?" Diamond asked.

"That's the hope."

"I'm in."

"Just like that?"

"I can't speak for my father, of course. But I think I personally owe you more than you realize already. If you say it's worthwhile, I trust you. I'm in."

"Thanks, Diamond." Sweetie Belle couldn't help but smile. Three years ago, everypony in class, even her own friends, had called her crazy for trying to befriend the two biggest bullies. Now, not only had they stopped picking on everyone, but they'd become pretty good friends to her in their own right. So, while she logically knew it was by no means a done deal, she couldn't help but feel she'd just been granted a multi-million bit favor on the power of friendship alone. It really was magic.

"Now," Diamond said. "You mind telling me what I just signed on for?"

----

CMC Headquarters.
That evening.

"That's great!" Apple Bloom said, happy to hear the news from Sweetie Belle. "Ya think she'll be able to convince her dad to go along with it though?"

"Well," Sweetie said. "Like Diamond said, it's all about profit. As long as we can prove the potential for that, the rest is just a matter of balancing the numbers. We just need to get a proper presentation together for him."

"We could show off the Teapot!" Scootaloo said, eager to help. "I bet he'd love that."

"Ah think we might want to keep it a bit more... professional," Apple Bloom said. "Besides, just the potential revenue from the railroads should be more 'en enough profit for 'im. Let's save the fun stuff for later."

"What worries me," Sweetie said, "is, even if Diamond and her dad come through, and agree to keep everything secret for a couple of years, the second they start selling, everypony in the world is gonna be trying to jump into the market too. Somepony's bound to figure out where the equium is coming from at that point."

"Yeah," Scootaloo said. "It'll be impossible to keep it a secret after ponies start using it all over Equestria."

"We got one other problem to worry about too," Apple Bloom said. "Let's not forget, the whole point'a this wasn't to start a business or change the world. The point was to keep the diamond dogs from poisonin' their kids." Sweetie and Scootaloo lost their smiles at the reminder. "Even if we pull that off, let 'em grow up healthy, they ain't gonna be able to do much with their smarter minds if they don't get some education to go with it."

Sweetie nodded. "Yeah, if this works—"

"When it works," Apple Bloom corrected.

"When it works," Sweetie continued. "There's going to be an entire generation of diamond dogs growing up, needing schools."

"Well," Scootaloo said. "There'll be plenty of bits to help pay for schools, and to hire ponies to teach them."

"But what to teach them, that's going to be the tricky thing. The basics, sure, at first. But when they get a little older, what then? When unicorns learn magic, or pegasi end up at flight school, where do the diamond dogs go?"

The conversation was interrupted by a knock at the door. "Come on in, Runt." Apple Bloom called, recognizing the unique echo of his lifeforce outside the door.

Runt stepped into the treehouse. "We were just talkin' about ya," Apple Bloom said.

"We were?" Sweetie asked.

"Close enough. Anyway, got a question for ya, Runt. What would ya do if ya had a million bits?"

"B-bits?"

"Ya know, money?"

"I don't kn-know. Is that a lot?"

Chuckling, Apple Bloom replied. "Yeah, it's a lot. What would ya do if ya had enough money to do whatever ya wanted?"

Runt scratched behind his drooping ear as he thought. "Uh, first I'd l-leave the tunnels. Get some house way h-h-high up, like this."

"You think this is high?" Scootaloo said. "You should see Cloudsdale!"

Runt tilted his head in what they'd come to recognize as a non-verbal, "What?"

"It's a pegasus city that's actually made of clouds. It's way, way up in the sky!"

Eyes lighting up, Runt said, "That s-s-sounds amazing! H-how do you g-get there?"

"Well, us pegasi just fly there. But other ponies can get up there by balloon and stuff."

"Do you th-think I could g-go sometime?"

The Crusaders looked at one another, shrugging. "I don't see why not," Sweetie Belle said. "I can probably get Twilight to teach me her cloudwalking spell. Maybe we can visit in a couple of weeks."

Runt smiled. "Th-thanks! I c-can't wait!"

"So," Apple Bloom said, getting back on track. "What else would ya do with all that money. After ya got yer own place up high somewhere?"

"Ummm... I think I'd buy l-lots of b-b-b-books. Th-there's just so mu-much to learn."

"You like learning things?" Scootaloo said.

Runt nodded.

"Have you ever thought about going to school?"

"We don't h-have schools. I r-read about them though."

"Well," Apple Bloom said. "We were thinkin' maybe ya might want to go to a pony school, at least for a bit."

"I c-could do that?"

"I don't know if—" Sweetie Belle started to say, when Apple Bloom cut her off.

"Yeah, o' course ya can."

"But Apple Bloom," Sweetie said. "I'm not sure that—"

"I said, o' course he can go to school," Apple Bloom insisted, then amended in a whisper to Sweetie, "We'll figure out the details later."

Runt looked between the two, slightly confused as to what exactly the issue was. But the thought of seeing a city in the sky, and of getting to go to school and learn all those things he could only try to guess at before, that's what kept his focus—and his smile. He couldn't wait!

"I think," Sweetie Belle said. "That leaves us with one final problem. We just have to figure out how to keep things from getting out of hoof once sales of equium kick in."

"Okay," Scootaloo said. "Maybe I'm not thinking this through all the way, but... why don't we just ask Princess Celestia to help? Can't she just 'decree it so' or something?"

"Ya know," Apple Bloom said, smiling. "That just might work."

----

Throne Room, Canterlot Castle.
One Week Later.

Princess Celestia reviewed the files one final time. The Cutie Mark Crusaders would be arriving shortly, and she was making sure she had all the details straight beforehoof. Twilight had been keeping the Princess apprised of the situation ever since Sweetie had brought her the lead acetate sample and they'd realized what was happening to the diamond dogs. Celestia had been devastated when she'd read that first report.

When Luna had been banished over a thousand years ago, the diamond dogs had been a moderately powerful empire in their own right. Like the griffons, caribou, and other races, they'd had their ups and downs and mostly kept to themselves. Over the centuries though, their civilization had waned and Equestria itself had grown to cover the lands the diamond dogs used to call their own. As the remnants were mostly underground, there had been only minimal problems. Celestia realized she'd thought almost nothing of it at the time. The decline had been so gradual as to be nearly unnoticed, and as it meant less conflict, her few thoughts on the subject had been mostly positive. At some point, probably a few centuries ago, she'd basically forgotten about the old empire entirely, and considered the remaining diamond dogs to be part of her own nation, no different from the other myriad creatures and beings under her protection. And that's where she had failed them.

Somehow, she'd let an entire race poison themselves nearly to extinction while under her rule. She hadn't noticed. She'd seen the decline, and merely taken it as a blessing, rather than something to be investigated. How many had died of starvation as they lost their ability to plan for the future? How many were killed by senseless violence, driven there by the poison in their minds? How many children had been poisoned on her watch? How many could she have saved if, centuries ago, she'd merely taken a few minutes to dispatch a pony to investigate? The answer, she knew, was too many. It was always too many.

Now there were these three fillies. In a matter of weeks, they'd not only discovered the problem she'd overlooked for centuries, but had developed a solution as well. And not just some basic stop-gap. No, these young ponies had not only figured out something for the diamond dogs to enjoy instead of the poison, but they'd also developed an elaborate plan of trade that would ensure the diamond dogs had candy for years and years to come, and would also bring a revolutionary new source of energy to all of Equestria. Then, as if that wasn't impressive enough, they'd foreseen and compensated for the incredibly disruptive nature of the whole thing, and already made deals to protect not just the diamond dogs and their interests, but the Equestrian economy itself. She could've thrown an army of diplomats and economists at the problem, and they'd take a year or more to do what three fillies had done in under a month. The efficiency with which the Crusaders attacked and solved problems was, Celestia thought to herself, humbling, if not outright frightening.

Flipping through the files, Princess Celestia tried to focus on the upsides. For one thing, at least she finally knew what that most recent charge—"one biggest bestest every-flavor-we-have candy assortment"—to the Royal-Party Emergency Fund was for. The fund was one of the few treasury accounts she kept personal tabs on, as very few ponies were authorized to the account, and it was meant to be used only rarely. Pinkie Pie was one of those, however. And while about two thirds of her charges seemed to indicate that she had mentally put the hyphen in the wrong place—treating it as the Royal Party-Emergency Fund—the remainder often provided an early warning system of sorts for impending issues. It was, effectively, a crude way to harness Pinkie Sense for the national good, and well worth the cost of occasional bills for balloons, confetti, and pudding.

Celestia had seen the charge show up over a month ago, and at first dismissed it as the party-emergency type, but it had made her pay much closer attention to news from Ponyville anyway, just in case. Now it was pretty clear that it was related to an emergency worthy of the Royal Party. More importantly, the charge had, at least in some small way, helped expedite the work the Crusaders had undertaken to save the diamond dogs. In that regard, it was worth every single bit. If only somepony like them had been there eight hundred years ago.

"Good afternoon, sister!"

Celestia looked up to see Luna entering the room. "Good afternoon, Luna. You're up early."

"Yes, I thought it would be interesting to meet this diamond dog the Crusaders are bringing." Seeing her sister frown, Luna added, "That is, if you don't mind me intruding upon your audience."

"No no, of course not."

"Then what worries you?"

Celestia sighed. "How can I face him, Luna? How can I look this child in the eye, when I let his entire race poison themselves for nearly a millennium?"

Luna moved to hug her sister. "It's not your fault, Tia. You mustn't blame yourself."

"I know. I know. It's just, I could have done something. If I'd realized. If I'd just paid more attention all those years ago."

"No pony is perfect, not even you, dear sister. You can't be responsible for the whole world."

"But I am, aren't I?"

"Tia, you can't—"

"I raise the sun, and lower it every evening. Everypony in the world depends on me. If the great Celestia, Princess of the Sun, isn't responsible for the world, then who is?"

"All of us. Each and every pony. We are all responsible for the world."

Sighing, Celestia looked up and smiled at her sister. "Thank you, Luna. Have I mentioned how much I missed you while you were gone?"

"Yes, and I you. But really, Tia, the whole world? Apparently you let your head get almost as fat as your thighs while I was gone." Luna stuck out her tongue and ducked out of range before Celestia could swat at her.

"I suppose I deserve that one. Still, I just wish I could have done more."

Luna dropped her playful pose. "If wishes were fishes..."

"...the sea would be full." Celestia finished the quote. "I know, I know."

"Let us do what we can now though. It is never too late to improve things."

Celestia laughed. "I thought I was supposed to be the sunny, cheerful one."

"Mayhap thou should behave as such then?" Luna had, for the most part, adopted modern vernacular only a few years after her return, but felt the antiquated modes of speech were a great way to tease her sister.

"Aye, verily." Celestia, in turn, felt exactly the same way. The two were interrupted by the arrival of a palace guard.

"Your audience has arrived, Princess."

"Show them in, Corporal."

The guard nodded to his companions by the main doors, and they swung them open. He then unfurled a scroll in front of his eyes, puffed out his chest, and bellowed, "Announcing the arrival of the Cutie Mark Crusaders: Ms. Apple Bloom, Ms. Scootaloo, and Ms. Sweetie Belle; and their retinue: Mr. Runt, Ms. Diamond Tiara, Ms. Silver Spoon, Ms. Twist, and... Princess Twilight Sparkle." The guard nearly stuttered on the last name, taken completely by surprise that a royal princess was somehow merely in the "retinue" for three fillies. His duty complete though, he let the scroll roll itself up, and marched back to his post by the doors.

"Welcome, my little ponies!" Celestia said. They seemed taller than she remembered. Thinking back, she realized she hadn't seen the three Crusaders since taking them to visit the Caribou last winter. Had it really been the better part of a year?

"Howdy, Princess!" Apple Bloom said. "Good ta see ya again. You too, Princess Luna!"

The other ponies chorused their various greetings as well. Introductions were then made, mostly for the benefit of those ponies not accustomed to meeting royalty. Both Diamond and Silver were nearly at a loss for words to be having an audience at the Royal Throne of Canterlot. Twist was happy, but not nearly as awed by the fame. Then Runt was introduced.

"It is an honor to make your acquaintance Mr. Runt," Celestia said, nodding to him in a slight bow. But Runt's eyes just went wide, and he froze, staring up at her. Before him was the biggest pony he had ever seen. He didn't know they could get that big. Apple Bloom and her friends were already larger than him, if not quite as tall, and several other ponies he'd seen were bigger than him on all counts. But Princess Celestia, she could probably step on him by accident and not even notice.

An elbow caught him in the side. "I said, 'Runt, this is Princess Celestia!'" He looked to his side, at Apple Bloom, who through gritted teeth muttered "Yer supposed to say, 'hello!'"

"H-h-hello." Runt said.

"Not to me," Apple Bloom lamented, her hoof going to her forehead. "To her!" She pointed back at the enormous white pony standing in front of him.

Celestia smiled warmly, "It's okay, Apple Bloom." The Princess of the Sun then lowered herself onto her knees and then to the floor, bringing herself to eye level with the small diamond dog. "Hello, Runt. I know this must all be a bit disorienting. I'm sorry if I scared you."

Looking at her face to face, Runt couldn't take his eyes off her mane. It... It just kept moving. It was like it was made of the sky itself, rather than hair. It was beautiful, yet from it rose a horn so massive it could skewer him like a spit. He had to keep reminding himself this was a pony, not a diamond dog. Ponies didn't beat up smaller ponies just for fun. Just because she was bigger than him didn't make her a threat.

"I... I'm s-s-sorry," Runt finally manage to stammer. "You're ju-just so b-b-b-big!"

Behind Celestia, Luna exploded with laughter. "See, Tia! I told you! Too much cake! Your thunder thighs scare even a diamond dog!"

Twilight and the Crusaders had, of course, seen the royal sisters with their guard down before. The young ponies found it pretty funny, and laughed along with Luna. Twilight merely rolled her eyes. But for Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon, this was world shattering. It was odd enough to see a Princess kneeling and then laying down before a young diamond dog, but then Luna's insult left both of them standing with mouths agape.

For his part, Runt had no idea what had just happened. "Never mind her," Celestia told him, while peals of laughter continued behind her. "She's just picking on me because I put instant pudding in her shower again."

"Y-you get p-p-picked on, t-too?" Runt said.

"Of course. She's my sister. It's what sisters do."

Runt tried to wrap his mind around that. Celestia was the biggest pony he'd ever seen. She was the biggest anything he'd ever seen. Yet even she got picked on and teased?

"D-doesn't it... h-hurt? Don't you g-g-get mad?"

"Sometimes, but not for long. It's easy with a sister, of course. I know she loves me, and I her. But I've also been called much worse by more ponies than one could count. I have been insulted, both in the flesh and in writing, by ambassadors, generals, viscounts, kings, queens, and everypony in between. They have ridiculed my personality, mental acuity, tastes, emotions, gender, species, and pretty much every physical aspect of my being up to and including—for reasons I'm still not clear on—my elbows."

"H-how do y-y-you p-put up with th-that?"

Celestia leaned in close, draping a wing over Runt. "You want to know the secret?"

Runt nodded.

"The secret is that such things, even the most vile of them, are only words. They may be true or they may be false, but their mere utterance does not determine their veracity."

Runt tilted his head in confusion.

"I may be fat. Or I may not be fat. Either way, my sister telling me I am does not actually change the fact. It is either true or not true, regardless of her insult. So why should it bother me? If I'm fat, then she's telling me the truth, and if anything, I should take issue with the fact itself, not with her. If I'm not fat, then she's lying. And why should I let the words of a liar bother me?"

And for that, Runt had no answer, even though he felt he'd been doing exactly that for almost his entire life.

A few lengths away, Twilight was smiling. Her own childhood was full of moments like the one she had just seen, Celestia confiding some secret knowledge of the universe that always seemed to be exactly what Twilight needed to hear. Standing now on the outside, as an adult—and princess—in her own right, Twilight felt she'd gained a new perspective on her lifelong mentor in recent years. Celestia was wise, of that there could be no doubt. And she really and truly did know great secrets about the universe. But what impressed Twilight more and more wasn't the arcane knowledge or seemingly infinite power that Celestia possessed, but rather the care and genius she applied to even the smallest of things.

There were plenty of unicorns that could learn probably any ancient spell that Celestia knew. There were hundreds of scholars that knew more about particular histories than she did. There were even other ponies, herself and Luna included, who could raise the sun. But would any of them have been able to kneel down in front of a frightened young diamond dog, and manage to make the "sticks and stones" lesson into a special "secret" that he'd likely never forget? Would any of them have known to even try? Twilight didn't think so, and that's what made Celestia so impressive.

Finishing her talk with Runt, Celestia folded her wings and stood, before turning to address Apple Bloom. "I believe you've come with a proposal you'd like me to assist with?"

"Yes, ma'am." Apple Bloom said. "Ah've been workin' the past few weeks, tryin' to figure out how ta get the diamond dogs a supply'a candy in trade for hotrocks, without 'em gettin' overwhelmed."

"Yes, I've read the basics in what Twilight sent me." While technically true, Celestia had actually read the entire proposal the young ponies had come up with. Twilight and Celestia had both agreed it would be best for them to all present it in person though, mostly as a learning experience. However, Celestia admitted to herself, she'd also asked for the face to face because she needed to remind herself why it was all worth it.

The Crusaders began their presentation with Apple Bloom explaining the basics. Twist, with a small capital investment to start with, would make candy. She'd then trade that candy with the diamond dogs in exchange for hot rocks. Filthy Rich's company—with Diamond Tiara managing things—would then purchase those hotrocks, and they'd be stored temporarily.

Diamond Tiara then stepped in to continue. She explained how after several months, the local stockpile of hotrocks would be shipped to the company's main facilities in Manehatten, and refining operations would begin. In the meantime, Sweetie Belle, with assistance from Twilight, would help train company unicorns in the process, and oversee the initial setup of a small lab to run the operation. The hotrocks would be refined and the resulting equium stored in special containers to prevent accidental activation.

Meanwhile, they'd also be building and testing equium powered locomotives, as well as looking into the difficulty of retrofitting existing steam engines for the new power source.

This would all continue, Apple Bloom explained, for several years. As soon as the workflow was sorted out and things were running smoothly though, the operation would then expand to other diamond dog warrens around Equestria.

"And that's where it starts to get kinda tricky," Apple Bloom said. "Diamond's company can handle—"

"It's my father's company actually," Diamond Tiara interjected.

"Fer now," Apple Bloom said, a slight smirk crossing her face. "Anyway, their company has the resources to handle all the refinin' and transport, but they ain't exactly got a diplomatic corps or anything. So that's the first bit we need some help on. Ponies that can talk them other diamond dogs into tradin' candy and stayin' away from that poison sweetrock. And ponies that can keep their mouths shut about it too."

Celestia nodded. "I'm sure I can find some trustworthy mares and stallions for the job."

"I reckoned as much. We're also gonna need a candy company."

"Isn't Miss Twist here your supplier?"

Twist stepped forward. "Umm, well your highness. I like making candy, and I'm really happy that I can maybe help out by doing what I already like to do. But I don't want to run some big candy company."

"Yeah," Scootaloo said. "We tried to talk her into it. But she insists she doesn't want to be rich."

Twist blushed, then pushed her glasses back up on her nose. "I'm happy to help out in Ponyville, and if I can make enough money to open my own store here in town in a few years, that's great. But I just want to have little shop with customers I know, not run some huge factory."

Celestia smiled. "That's a very mature view of things, my little pony. I suspect you'll be much happier for it in the long run."

Twist smiled at the compliment. "Like I told Apple Bloom, I'll be happy to share my recipe with whoever you think can handle the big stuff."

"Couldn't your father's company do it, Diamond Tiara?" Celestia asked.

"Well, we're really more of an industrial and manufacturing company, and..."

"It's okay, Diamond," Sweetie Belle said. "You can blame it on me." Sweetie then looked at Celestia. "I basically told her they couldn't have that too. Originally I was thinking to not let Twist get pushed out of the deal, but... Well, bottom line is, I think the equium monopoly is enough for one company. Frankly, some other ponies deserve to get a piece of the pie, no offense to you or Filthy Rich, Diamond."

"None taken," Diamond said. "I actually think you're right. It's more fair that way. It also means we don't have to explain why an industrial company suddenly decided to expand into confections."

Behind it all, Twilight smiled again. She looked forward to telling Rarity about this. Her little sister was spreading the idea of generosity so infectiously, that even the formerly spoiled brat of an industrial tycoon was happily turning away from greed.

"So," Apple Bloom continued. "If ya know any ponies with a candy factory, or lotsa money to start one..."

"What about me?" Silver Spoon said. The others turned toward the previously quiet pony. She hadn't been part of the plan, just allowed to come along on the trip because Diamond was going, and she wanted to meet the Princesses as well.

"Huh?" Apple Bloom queried.

"I... I totally understand if you don't think I deserve it or anything, but... What if I ran the candy making business?"

Stepping over to her friend, Diamond Tiara looked Silver in the eyes. "You know you're my best friend, so please don't be mad, but... Well, first off, isn't your dad's business in shipping? Secondly, and it hurts me to say this, but your dad isn't exactly somepony I'd trust with this sort of thing."

"Not my dad. Me."

The others looked confused.

Silver looked around the room, realizing she knew most of those present and trusted them. Of the ones she didn't, well... if you couldn't trust the princesses and the royal guard, then who could you trust? Silver sighed, then started to explain. "Okay, yeah, my dad's current business is in shipping. But before that, it was in coal mining. Before that, sports equipment. Before that, agricultural supplies. And before that, encyclopedia sales. He's never made a profit in any of them."

"How's that possible?" Scootaloo said, "I thought you guys were rich!"

Silver looked down. "We are. But it's not because of my dad. All the money is my mom's..." Silver paused, steeling herself before correcting, "...was my mom's."

There was a brief round of mumbled condolences, and Diamond craned her neck around to hug Silver before letting her continue. "It's mine now though. Well, technically it's in a trust for another year and a half or so, but I have some access to it. That's why my dad's been going so crazy since mom died. He didn't get much in her will, just a small monthly stipend. Enough to live comfortably on, but not to be rich. The rest all went to me."

Ears around the room perked up. This was the first any of them, including Diamond and Sweetie, had heard of this inheritance.

"While she was alive, mom kept funding all dad's crazy ventures, but when she was sick there at the end... she told me that was it. The money she'd kept behind was for me, not him. He'd already gotten his share, she said. She told me to go out and be my own mare, and to do something worthwhile with both my life and the money. I promised her I wouldn't let either go to waste."

The Crusaders looked around at each other, unsure what to think of this new revelation, then Luna spoke up. "Forgive me for being so bold, but may I ask how much money we are discussing here?"

Looking toward the darker princess, Silver Spoon responded. "Around fifty million bits are in the trust fund, though some of that is reserved for schooling and some other specific purposes by the will."

Eyes were wide around the room. That was, Diamond Tiara thought, "a lot of money," even by her standards. Her own family's assets were probably around the same scale, but the majority of them were tied up in the company. Having that much in liquid funds was, well, impressive, Diamond thought.

Sweetie Belle was the first to shake off the surprise. "Sorry, Silver. That's just a lot to wrap our heads around I think. Why are you just telling us about this now?"

"Well... When mom died, I didn't want ponies just being nice to me because they knew I was rich."

"You do realize, everypony already knew you were rich, right?"

"It's just different," Silver said. "I'm rich now, not my parents. But Sweetie, you and Diamond... you were my friends though all this hard stuff anyway. I know I can trust you both, and I think my mom would agree."

The two aforementioned ponies smiled, as Silver continued. "I also think she'd like this idea. It's a business, and unless you're all outright lying to me, it should be a pretty wise investment. Secondly, it'll be doing some good in the world too. As such, I think it's exactly the sort thing the trust fund allows me to tap in early for. I'm sure the attorneys in charge of it would agree."

"And if not," Luna said, grinning, "I'm sure a letter from a princess—or three—might change some minds."

"Let's try not to strong-hoof anypony just yet, sister," Celestia said. "Besides, this is not ours to decide." Celestia turned to Apple Bloom and the Crusaders. "This is your plan, Apple Bloom. I will leave it in your hooves to decide if Silver Spoon is the partner you wish for this portion of the endeavor."

Apple Bloom, caught on the spot, wasn't quite sure what to make of this. She looked to Sweetie Belle, who of course nodded. Then she looked to Scootaloo, who merely shrugged. Luna and Celestia were exactly as unreadable as one expected thousand year old royalty to be, and Twilight... Well, Twilight just smiled happily. It really was up to her, she reckoned.

Thinking for a moment, Apple Bloom realized her real problem was still ancient. Silver Spoon had been filed under "enemy" for so many years, that it was hard to not get crosstalk from the past in her mind when thinking about the rich pony in the present. This was important though! The fate of the diamond dogs, of Equestria itself—or at least its near-future economy—hung in the balance. It was hard enough trusting Diamond Tiara, but at least that was mitigated by the fact that it was her father's company technically, and they were an established industrial juggernaut already. Silver was proposing to do all this from scratch.

On the other hoof though, weren't they doing all of this from scratch? So why couldn't Silver manage it? It was just making some candy canes after all. Heck, Silver was actually older than she was even. They were all nearly adults now. If she removed the thought of Silver as a former bully from her thoughts, Apple Bloom couldn't find any real reason Silver wouldn't have just as good of a shot at pulling this off as she herself would. Actually, she could think of about fifty million reasons that Silver'd have an even better shot at it.

"Okay, works fer me," Apple Bloom said, walking over to Silver. "Welcome aboard!" The two bumped hooves. "That fixes that bit up nicely then. Next part's a mite more difficult I suspect though."

"Do tell," Luna prompted.

"Well, if we manage to get the diamond dogs off sweetrock, them kids are gonna be growin' up smart, like Runt here. They're gonna need schoolin', despite what my dear friend Scootaloo might think."

"Hey!" Scootaloo said, sticking out her tongue. "I'm all about books now, remember?"

"Ya know I'm just kiddin'," Apple Bloom said. "But in all seriousness, if this works, we're gonna have an entire generation'a diamond dogs growin' up, and none'a their own are gonna be able to teach 'em properly."

Celestia and Luna both nodded. "So what's your suggestion there?" Celestia prompted.

"Well, we don't really know what they're gonna need to learn. I mean, unicorns get magic school, pegasi usually go to flight schools. Earth ponies, well..." Apple Bloom looked around at Diamond, Silver, Twist, and thought about the various other earth ponies she knew as well: Pinkie Pie, the Cakes, Carrot Top, even her own family. "I guess we tend to just jump right into work and business, don't we. Anyway, point is we don't know what the diamond dogs'll need. So fer now, I say ya collect like a twenty percent tax on equium, and put it in an educational fund. Then we can use it to take care of 'em when they start to be ready for school in a few years."

"Sounds quite reasonable," Celestia said.

"In the meantime..." Apple Bloom said, nodding to Runt to pick up the thread. He just shied away though.

"Go on," Apple Bloom encouraged him. "They need to hear it from you."

Runt looked up at the massive pony princess, took a deep breath, then sputtered out, "I want to go to school!"

"I thought he could come to classes with us," Scootaloo said. "But Twilight thinks that'd be unfair."

"And it would be," Twilight said. "Cheerilee has a hard enough time just keeping the lot of you under control. Runt... Runt has a lot of catching up to do. He's going to need a school and teachers that can help him with that."

Celestia once again knelt to eye level with the diamond dog. "There are many boarding schools throughout Equestria that offer education to multiple species, so I'm sure we can find a place for you. And while I think your desire is noble, I want to warn you, school may be very difficult. I know of no other diamond dogs that have attended one. You would likely be the only one of your species wherever you go."

"Th-that's p-p-perfect," Runt said. "I d-d-d-don't get along w-w-well with other d-d-diamond dogs."

That was, Celestia thought, so very, very sad. And her own fault as well. Here stood the one diamond dog that seemingly escaped the consequences of her negligence, and yet he was isolated and alone, even among his own species, because of it. Yet he was still determined to better himself.

"Well then," she said. "If it's what you truly want, then it would be my honor to recommend you to a school, and pay for your tuition as well." It was, Celestia realized sadly, almost literally, the least she could do.

"N-no," Runt said. "I m-m-mean... I w-want to go to sch-school, but I'll p-pay for it, m-m-myself."

Celestia blinked in surprise. The sort of schools that could provide the specialized education he'd need would be expensive, and she didn't think Runt quite understood just... Her thoughts tapered into a mental facehoof just as Apple Bloom interjected with the explanation.

"See Princess, ah figure Runt here, well, he sorta got this whole thing rollin'. So I figure we all owe him a bit of a finder's fee for all the business that's about to go down. Reckon one percent or so oughta be enough to pay for a boardin' school, dontcha think?"

Celestia smiled, even though it hurt inside. She was denied even that token gesture of compensation. Yet she had to admire the completeness of it. "Of course, of course," she said. "I'm sure that will be more than sufficient. And I applaud your thoroughness. You seem to have considered all angles in this venture."

"Thanks, Princess," Apple Bloom said. "We've all been workin' hard to sort it."

"So if I'm understanding correctly, all you need from me is to find a few trustworthy liaisons to contact and initiate trade with the other diamond dog warrens, and provide a letter of recommendation for Runt to a school of his choice?"

"Well," Apple Bloom said. "There is one more thing."

Celestia knew there would be, and she suspected it was the one thing these fillies, bright and thorough as they were, didn't fully understand. "Yes?" she prompted.

"Well, we need ya to make this kinda official. Like, yer hoofprint on things, promisin' all the splits and such go where they're supposed to. Diamond's father, Filthy Rich, well he needs that sorta guarantee."

Diamond spoke up. "We need to know that, if our company invests that much money in stockpiling a resource we can't sell for years, that we'll have exclusive rights to it. That... forgive me, your Highness, but my father needs to know we aren't being cheated. That you're not letting some other company stockpile equium too."

And there it was, Celestia thought. The request to make things official with a royal seal. Of course it made sense when taken piece by piece. Stockpiling buffered the market, which kept the diamond dogs from being overwhelmed. Letting a company do it made sense because they had the resources in place. Of course they deserve to profit from their investment. Of course it had to be secret too, or the economy was at risk until there was a stockpile. So of course they needed assurances that they weren't being swindled. It all made perfect sense, and it was a great solution to a difficult problem. It would help both the diamond dogs and Equestria itself in the long run.

These well intentioned fillies, brilliant, amazing, and clever, had the perfect plan. But it wasn't a perfect world. Celestia knew that they were only asking for something that was perfectly logical and reasonable. But if you didn't understand logic and reason—if instead, you were the type of pony that engaged in politics—then it looked like something much, much more sinister. What the Crusaders were asking for, and—Celestia had already decided—were about to get, was literally a secret, government-sanctioned monopoly on a highly valuable natural resource, which bypassed all normal government channels and economic safeguards in no less than fifteen different laws and treaties designed specifically to ensure that such things never occurred.

"So ya think ya can help us out?" Apple Bloom asked, after Celestia had paused longer in thought than expected.

"Of course, my little ponies. I'll be happy to sanction and guarantee the terms of the venture."

Luna gave a brief, side-eyed glance to her sister, and Celestia returned it with an eyebrow raise both knew to mean, "We'll talk about it later."

"Thank you!" Apple Bloom said. "I think that's all then. I know we gotta get ya some papers on all this, but Twilight said she'd help with that later this week."

"Will you stay and dine with us?" Luna asked, mostly to Twilight.

"I'd love to, Luna," Twilight said. "But I promised this group we'd go visit Cloudsdale once we finished up here. Apple Bloom's been begging to see one of the new mainline airships, and one of them is making the Canterlot-Cloudsdale run this afternoon."

"I understand," Luna said, then turned more generally towards everypony. "I hope you all enjoy your trip."

There was a chorus of thank-yous and goodbyes as the audience ended, with Twilight eventually ushering the group out of the throne room. Luna and Celestia were then left alone as the guards pulled the outer doors shut.

"You do realize what you've just committed to," Luna said. "Don't you, Tia?"

Celestia made a show of counting under her breath. "Seventeen violations of various anti-trust acts, three counts of conspiracy, and four different cases of treason. Though, technically, I'm not sure I can commit treason against myself, and the treaty with the Crystal Empire was before reunification, so maybe it's only two conspiracy violations as well."

"Very funny," Luna said, deadpan. "And you forgot the one about doing absolutely boneheaded things just because you feel like it."

"That's not a law... that was just something you decreed while drunk one night."

"And royal decrees are laws! You said so yourself when you insisted I take my half of the royal duties."

The two sisters smiled at each other. Then the smiles faded as reality once again set in.

"You're right, Lulu," Celestia said, sitting down on the floor. "I'm in deep on this one."

Luna nodded. "We are in deep."

"It's the right thing to do though, right?"

"It is."

"But..."

"The scandal. I know. I remember thinking that courtesan gossip was bad enough a thousand years ago, but since my return... These newspapers, Tia! How'd you let them get so out of hoof?"

"They kept me in check," Celestia said, with no trace of sarcasm in her voice. "They are ugly, in their own way. But they shine a light into any darkness, even my own."

"Darkness?"

"Oh Luna... I... After what happened to you, I saw the same darkness in myself at every turn. The Nightmare took you in a moment of weakness, a moment of darkness. But it could've just as easily been me. A thousand years by myself, and it was so easy to just brush aside concerns when they contradicted my own opinions, so easy to simply ignore the voices of ponies I was supposed to be caring for."

Luna sat down next to her sister and wrapped a wing around her larger sister, leaning into her warm side. "And the newspapers?"

"Vile. Awful. Rats, the lot of them. But like recognizes like. I realized that if those rats could get their claws into me, then I was probably doing something dirty."

"That's... amazingly pessimistic, Tia. Even for you."

"It's like I told that little diamond dog earlier though. If what the rats say bothers me, then perhaps it is what I'm doing that I should be bothered about."

"And this monopoly you've just granted? Surely you don't think that wrong?"

"No! No, of course not. It is, just as those fillies all explained, the best solution possible."

"And the rats?"

"Oh, they're going to tear me shreds when they find out. When equium sales begin in earnest, and everypony starts looking into things, they'll be demanding my head for interfering so directly in the market. Which reminds me..."

Luna looked up and made inquisitive eye contact with her sister by her side.

"You remember that 'suggestion' you, Cadance, and Twilight have all been trying to push on me since last winter?"

"Taking the title of Queen?"

Nodding, Celestia explained. "I think I finally see a reason for it."

"How so?"

"When this becomes public, ponies will be outraged. I'm violating so many laws, but more importantly, I'm violating the basic principles of openness and fairness that Equestria is founded on. Nopony is going to let me accomplish anything useful, assuming they don't find some way to just kick me out entirely. Yet this equium thing... it's going to be a revolutionary advancement for our nation. It'll need to be managed carefully, as things will be changing fast, yet I won't be in any position to say much, much less heard."

"You think they'll listen more if you're a Queen?"

"No! Just the opposite really. That's why I didn't want to take the title before. It'll distance me from others, put me above you, Cadance, and Twilight."

"You are 'above' us, Tia, both literally and figuratively, and you know it."

"Be that as it may, that was never my real desire. But now some use might be made of that. If I call myself Queen now, it may serve to distance me from you and the other princesses. This 'venture' can be my doing, and mine alone. When it's revealed in a few years, and the outrage ensues, you and Twilight can say you had no knowledge of it. You can say I'd gone mad with power, calling myself Queen, issuing monopolies, etc. 'Oh, if only we'd seen the signs,' you can say."

"Really, Celestia?"

"Well, less ham-hoofed, but you get my point. You and Twilight can perhaps manage to steer the country for a year or two while I take the brunt of the scandal. Hopefully, if this all works as we imagine, all of Equestria will indeed benefit, and the outrage will fade quickly. If not though... It will make it easier to know that ponies I trust will still have the love of the populace."

Sighing, Luna looked up at her big sister. "You know that is never what we wanted you to be Queen for."

"I know, Lulu."

"It was meant to be an honor. First among us. A sign and symbol that you truly are the best of us."

Celestia felt tears start to well up in her eyes. "I know, Luna, and I love you for it."

"I love you too, Tia." Luna sniffled, and the two royal sisters hugged as they sat on the cold marble of the throne room floor.

----

Cloudsdale.
Three months later.

Though it wasn't quite as impressive as the mainliner they'd ridden from Canterlot several months ago, Apple Bloom still admired the elegant craftsponyship of the smaller airship's construction as she disembarked. The other Crusaders stepped off the deck behind her, followed closely by Runt and Twilight Sparkle. Reaching the bottom of the gangway, Twilight led the group to the end of the dock, where they retrieved Runt's luggage—a single trunk, filled mostly with books—and then on toward the far side of town.

As they walked—the non-winged kept aloft by Sweetie's recently perfected cloudwalking spell—Runt was smiling ear to ear. The young diamond dog was so incredibly happy to be on his way to school, and in Cloudsdale no less! Twilight and the Crusaders had helped him look at various schools, but he kept circling back to the prep school in Cloudsdale. For one, it wasn't too far from Ponyville, and the friends he'd made there. It also routinely housed plenty of non-pony students, including many griffons, a couple of caribou, and at least one minotaur. More importantly though, it was up high!

Here, there was no ground at all to be seen. There were no tunnels closing in on him, no tight spaces to get trapped in. The ground under his feet was cloud, not dirt. No diamond dog bullies would be popping out of it to torment him. Here, he felt safe. He felt, against all stereotypes for his race, at home.

"Whatcha starin' at?" Apple Bloom asked, seeing Runt, eyes closed, with his face turned toward the sun in a grin.

"I just... I'm so happy to b-be here!"

"Heh," Apple Bloom smiled. "I kinda knew that, seein' as ya wouldn't shut up about it for the past three weeks."

"Yeah," Scootaloo added. "And I thought I had been eager to reach the sky the first time."

In the past few months, Runt had learned to take the light teasing as the friendly banter it was meant to be, so totally different from the mocking he'd dealt with most of his life.

"Okay, come along now," Twilight said, after turning and finding her entourage lagging. "We don't want to be late."

The group hurried to catch up with Twilight, and made good time to the school, finding they were actually a half hour early for registration, and decided to take a walk to the nearby park.

As the ponies walked past the swingsets and cloudboxes, past benches and trotting tracks, Scootaloo spoke up. "This looks familiar somehow," she said.

"Have you been here before?" Twilight asked.

"I don't think so, but... isn't that the university across the way?" Scootaloo pointed across the grassy part of the park and track.

"I think so, why?"

"Is there another park like this, this close to it?"

"The university?"

Scootaloo nodded.

"I don't think so," Twilight said. "The maps only showed this one."

Collapsing onto her haunches in front of a cloudbox, Scootaloo said. "This is it then."

"What is?" Sweetie Belle asked.

Scootaloo pointed at the cloudbox in front of her. "Here. This. That's where I was... made."

The other ponies' eyes went wide in comprehension. This was the story they'd heard from Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash, of how Fluttershy had sculpted a friend out of the cloudstuff, and later it'd been brought to life by a wish and a cupcake. This was where Scootaloo had started.

The orange pegasus stood and walked to the edge of the cloudbox, dragging a forehoof through the cloudstuff within, before picking some up and letting it drift back down off her hoof. "Hard to believe," Scootaloo said. "That somehow this stuff became me."

"At l-least you started in the sk-sky," Runt offered. "Not in the d-dirt."

"Hey!" Apple Bloom said, assuming the diamond dog meant mock offense in her direction.

"N-not you. I meant me," he said.

"I guess you're right," Scootaloo said, smiling. "I did start in the sky. Probably explains why I was chasing it for so many years. Just wanted to get back up here."

"Yeah, ya were pretty single minded," Apple Bloom said. "But I think our friend Runt here's got ya beat. He's been tryin' way harder to chase the sky than you ever did, and he started from underground too!"

Scootaloo looked at Runt. "But you know what? We both made it! That's what counts. We're both up here now, aren't we, Runt?"

Runt grinned, his tongue hanging out slightly, and his bent ear flopping in the breeze. "Yup!"

"You know," Sweetie Belle said. "We're all going to miss having you around, Runt. These past few months have been fun."

"I'll miss you all t-too."

"Promise you'll come visit?"

"He better!" Apple Bloom said. "After all the work we went through to get 'im up here!"

"Speaking of," Twilight said. "This time we really might be late if we don't head back."

"Yeah," Scootaloo said. "Wouldn't want our friend here to miss the overwhelming joy of classes and homework!" The sarcastic statement was completely missed by Runt himself, who genuinely looked forward to classes and even homework.

The group returned to the school, and found the office now open. Twilight retrieved a clipboard with half a dozen forms to fill out, and was about to start writing when she thought better of it.

"Here," she said, passing the paperwork to Runt. "You'll need to get used to this kind of thing if you're going to study here."

Taking the clipboard eagerly, Runt sat down in the middle of the floor and began to fill out the various boxes and blanks. The scribbling was fast, but mostly legible, Twilight decided after looking over his shoulder. When the noise of quill on paper subsided though, she looked again. Runt had the end of the quill in his mouth, and was thinking about something.

"Something I can help explain?" Twilight asked.

"It says 'full legal name' here," Runt said.

"That means all your names together. For example, my full name is Twilight Sparkle, even though most of my friends just call me Twilight."

Runt continued to pause in thought.

"Are you trying to remember your full name?" Twilight prompted.

"No," Runt said. "I don't have a name."

"Well if you don't have another name, you can just put 'Runt.' Lots of ponies only have one name too."

"But I don't even have one name."

At this, Twilight hesitated. The odd statement also got the attention the Crusaders as well, who'd been distracted by an extremely obese griffon that was having trouble exiting the office.

"What do you mean?" Sweetie Belle said. "Isn't your name 'Runt'?"

"No. That's just what all the others called me since it's what I was, the runt. I never got a real name, and this form says full legal name. I don't have one."

Apple Bloom noticed then that Runt's stutter had practically vanished for this conversation, and started trying to figure out why.

"Wait," Scootaloo said. "Have we basically been insulting you by calling you Runt this whole time? I mean, ponies used to call me chicken and I hated it. I never meant to do that to you."

"No. It's okay," Runt said. "I know you didn't mean it as an insult, and I've been used to it for years. But... it's not a real name. I need a real name to go to school."

"Why dontcha just pick one then?"

"It... it wouldn't be a legal name though, would it?"

At this, Sweetie got a huge grin on her face. "I don't know... maybe we should ask somepony from the Royal Ponyville Library." When Twilight didn't get the hint, Sweetie elbowed the princess and tried again. "I said, maybe somepony from the Royal Ponyville Library might have some idea how to make something like a name change legally binding!"

Twilight looked at Sweetie Belle with a wrinkled brow. She knew the filly was hinting at something, but it wasn't quite—Oh, she thought. Then she laughed. Luna's drunken proclamation! Of course, Luna wasn't the only pony who was a princess.

"Are you suggesting that I, as a Royal Princess, might be able to issue a decree, and therefore make legal and binding a name of this creature's choosing?"

"Wait," Scootaloo said. "You can do that?"

"There are a few upsides to being a princess."

"So you could decree my name to be 'Scootaloo the Stupendous'?"

"More like Scootaloo the Stupidious," Apple Bloom muttered.

"Hey, I heard that!"

"Never accused ya'a bein' deaf, just dumb!" Apple Bloom said, smirking.

"Come on, guys, be serious," Sweetie Belle said. "This is a big deal here. Runt's trying to pick his own name."

"I can, r-really do that?" Runt asked, his stutter returning briefly.

"Yes, you certainly can," Twilight said. "And I'd be honored to make it my first royal decree."

"So," Apple Bloom said, "Watcha thinkin' about?"

"Yeah," Scootaloo added. "Pick something cool, like 'Ace' or 'Firetail'!"

"Just don't pick, 'Rupert'," Sweetie said, grinning. "Or we'll be here all night arguing about it."

Scootaloo and Apple Bloom both gave her a dirty look for that one.

"Can I pick a p-pony name?" Runt asked.

"Umm, sure," Twilight said. "You can pick any name you like."

"Well, I was thinking about what Scootaloo said earlier."

"Don't tell me yer goin' with 'Ace'!" Apple Bloom said, rolling her eyes.

"No. At the park. What you both kind of said, I guess." The ponies perked up their ears as he continued. "You said I'd been chasing the sky, and I think you're right. All I ever dreamed of since I first saw the blue sky and the clouds, was getting out of the tunnels. I imagined myself way, way up in that sky, away from the bullies and the dirt and ground. Free."

The ponies nodded in sympathy.

"So, yeah," Runt continued. "I think if there's one thing I've done with my life, it's chase the sky. Then, when you first brought me up here a few months ago, I thought I'd finally caught it. But that night, before we left, and we were waiting at the dock for the airship and the stars began to come out, I realized the sky goes so, so much further than I could ever imagine. But I still want to chase it."

"So?" Apple Bloom prompted. "What're we gonna call ya?"

"Sky Chaser," he said, smiling ear to ear with contentment.

----

Royal Dining Room, Canterlot Castle.
Three years later.

Looking down at the papers scattered on the table above her breakfast, Celestia scanned the headlines.

"Celestia's Treason!"

"Secret Royal Monopoly!"

"Equestria's Exclusive Equium Exposed!"

"Cadance's Griffon Love Child!"

"Royal-Industrial Conspiracy!"

"Teapot Dome Scandal!"

Thankfully, one of those was a celebrity tabloid, but the rest were well respected news sources. The day she'd been dreading had finally arrived. Queen Celestia sighed, and finished the last of her tea. For some reason, it tasted much more bitter today.

Author's Note:

I know it was a long wait, but I hope it was worth it. As promised, I'm publishing everything as soon as it's ready, rather than saving half this to buy time. As a reader though, I'd prefer it that way, so I hope ya'll do too. As a writer though, that means I'm back to zero buffer (and full pressure) for the next chapter. :pinkiecrazy: It should be a bit shorter though, and hopefully that means I can get it completed sooner.

Other news: I'll be at BABScon in San Francisco in a few weeks, and I'm on the writing staff for Everfree Northwest in July as well. If you're going to be at either convention and would like to meet up, let me know! See the blog post for more details.

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